There's a social contract when it comes to birthday parties for kids. You can't just be a recurring guest, enjoying the bouncy houses, gift bags and balloon animals arranged and paid for by other parents.
No, you have to reciprocate. Like it or not, there's a kid pro quo.
Other parents helped you kill a Sunday afternoon with your toddler, throwing a pirate party, a princess party, a bubble party or whatever, and now it's your turn. Or, I should say, it's my turn. The first birthday I could get away with skipping, but now I have no choice. Like it or not, unless I feel like violating this unspoken contract with the other parents in my circle and at my day care, I am throwing a party for my son's second birthday.
Let's just say things aren't off to a good start. Cancer is involved. I know. I'll get to that.
First, my dream was to never throw an elaborate or expensive or exhausting birthday party for a child too young to care or even remember it. That dream was crushed, as I mentioned, by the social contract.
I decided the only course of action was to suck it up and pay one of these indoor playground places to host us. It goes like this: I throw them some cash, they provide plates and forks, a ball pit, air-conditioning, a giant slide, a bucket of juice boxes and the satisfaction of knowing I have not shirked my mom duties. Again, my child won't care -- that dude just made his first poop in the potty; like he cares if he gets a sheet cake from the grocery store or a chocolate ganache likeness of Thomas the Tank Engine from a bakery that sells $7 cupcakes. Like I said, these parties are payback for all the genuine fun and amusement I've had at the expense and inconvenience of other parents.
Now, how does cancer make its way into this story?
Two months in advance, I book the Saturday of his birthday. Plans are made, invitations (OK, e-vites, sorry) are sent, and what do you know? This indoor playground lets me know they double-booked my time slot. I'm out, the other family is in, here's your deposit back, so long and farewell.
Obviously, there was nothing to do at this point but hang up the phone, get insanely upset, be fully aware that this is the worst thing that's ever happened to anyone and also take a moment to ponder how horribly I've failed. All I had to do was throw a stupid party, like all the other moms do without incident. But I have no luck and no social graces, and this proves it. More self-flagellating to frost the teetering, tiered, rising cake of self-doubt.
Hell hath no fury like a toddler mom scorned. Let me tell you, my Yelp review was going to be none too kind. This is the only petty revenge I had for the horrible wrong this playground did me. They would pay. OK, this would be a waste of my time and probably have no effect on their business. And it would never answer the question: Why me? Why me and not the other family who booked the same time?
I fantasized about showing up at my time anyway. That would show them. They would have dueling parties and perhaps a fire hazard. They had my deposit, and I would have my party, on my day, at my time, their mistake.
That's when the owner called, the mother of a girl a year older than my son. She said she was sorry, that this had never happened before, that she started the party playground to help busy moms, to make things amazing and memorable for the kids, to give herself something meaningful to do after she was diagnosed with cancer. That's right, and that's when I cried. And she cried. And she said things had fallen through the cracks since her treatment and her sister had stepped in to help out.
She offered me the 10 a.m. spot. Mimosas would be nice, she said. I could serve bagels. They would throw in some balloons and an extra hour for my trouble.
There are times when the universe goes, "Here's your gift bag." And you open it to find something more lasting than a painted face or a Curious George sticker. The theme of my son's party this year is obvious. Perspective.
Follow Teresa Strasser on Twitter: www.twitter.com/teresastrasser